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Posts Tagged ‘Classic Spring Theatre Company’

This final play in Classic Spring’s Oscar Wilde season seems to be dividing people on the basis of how broad the comedy is played, and the frisson between Algernon and Jack. I was happy with the former, but the latter did puzzle me, with the kissing seeming incongruous (especially with Lane, Algernon’s servant).

Wilde’s most famous and popular comedy was the fourth and last of his social satires, charting the relationships between Jack and Lady Bracknell’s daughter Gwendolen and Jack’s ward Cecily and Algernon, Gwendolen’s cousin, ending with the big reveal that Jack is more than Algernon’s friend and Gwendolen’s intended. Though these four are the main protagonists, when productions are announced, most are interested in who’s playing Lady Bracknell, in this case Sophie Thompson, who exceeded my expectations.

Designer Madeleine Girling’s palette of greens create a beautiful London flat and country house and garden, all adorned by hardly any furniture. Gabriella Slade’s period costumes are excellent. It builds in pace and interest to an excellent third act, though the story somehow felt even more contrived than usual. I assume director Michael Fentiman’s added frisson and kisses are meant to reference Wilde’s sexuality, but within the otherwise period comedy, they just jarred.

I thought relative newcomers Fehinti Balogun and Jacob Fortune-Lloyd had great chemistry and brought a youthful playfulness to Algernon and Jack respectively, and Pippa Nixon and Fiona Button both sparkled and shone as Gwendolen and Cecily. Sophie Thompson resisted her normal urge to overact and her Lady Bracknell was all the better for it, and Stella Gonet gave a fine performance as Miss Prism, particularly when her past emerges. Good casting has been a feature and a strength of this Wilde season.

I’ve enjoyed seeing all four over a relatively short period, in four very different productions. The plotting creaks a bit these days, but the dialogue still crackles.

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I’ve always thought this was Oscar Wilde’s best play, largely because it has more bite than his other social satires and because the themes of corruption, honour and morals are with us forever. Peter Hall’s 1992 production proved its enduring appeal on tour in the UK, on Broadway and in and out of the West End several times. It’s the third of the four plays in Dominic Dromgoole’s Classic Spring season, and it brings the season alive.

Mrs Cheveley, recently returned from Vienna, attempts to blackmail politician Sir Robert Chiltern, threatening to make public a letter proving he leaked information to enable someone to gain by the timely acquisition of shares, unless he speaks favourably in parliament about a project she and her friends have a vested interest in. She embroils his wife, a former school friend who takes a moral stance, and his friend Viscount Goring, a bit of a playboy with designs on Chiltern’s sister and ward, who tries to wrong-foot her. It’s very well plotted and littered with clever, witty lines from the second most quotable playwright, after Shakespeare.

I loved Frances Barber as the manipulative Mrs Cheveley, relishing her Machiavellian scheming, and I was very impressed by Freddie Fox as Viscount Goring, a role that fits him perfectly. Having his real dad Edward Fox play his stage dad gave the father and son sniping an added frisson. I haven’t seen Sally Bretton on stage and I wouldn’t have expected this to be her sort of role, but she plays Lady Chiltern really well. It’s a big supporting cast, most of whom we only see in the first act, within which it was lovely to see Susan Hampshire as Lady Markby. As with the previous two plays, there’s music between scenes, this time with Samuel Martin, Viscount Goring’s footman, playing Jason Carr’s music superbly on violin.

Simon Higlett’s versatile gold set is beautiful and his costumes gorgeous. Jonathan Church’s staging gave the play more edge and pungency than I remember. The whole production oozes quality and propels the season to another level altogether.

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Oscar Wilde was a much less prolific playwright than you might think. He only wrote nine plays and only four of his social satires are still staged, two regularly and two, including this, less so. First produced 125 years ago, it must have been a bit shocking at the time. Now it feels a bit awkward and old-fashioned, despite the feminism and trademark bon mots. There are some fine things about this production, but it doesn’t quite breathe life into a museum piece.

Lady Windermere is a young bride and new mother. Busy-body The Duchess of Berwick tells her Lord Windermere visits another woman, Mrs Erlynne, on a regular basis. She confronts her husband, but he insists it is all innocent, even inviting Mrs Erlynne to their party that evening. At the party she greets other men she already knows, sowing seeds of suspicion in other society ladies, and more than holds her own with them, even making a friend of one, in her pursuit of a welcome into society. Lord Windermere’s interest turns out to be protective of his wife, but it may never be known.

Paul Wills set and costumes are bright, colourful and gorgeous. Grace Molony impresses as Lady Windermere in her West End debut. Samantha Spiro is well suited to the role of Lady Erlynne, assertive and defiant, and Jennifer Saunders as the Duchess of Berwick is a pleasant surprise, given that she only appears to have done one other play, 20 years ago. As they did in A Woman of No Importance, there’s an entr’acte song (only one here, though) which enables her to show off her comedic talent and for those in smaller roles to showcase theirs. It’s a big cast for the West End, sixteen in total, and director Kathy Burke marshals them well.

I’m not sure the play is worthy of all the talent and resources. It’s creaking at the seams a bit and as much as it makes for a moderately pleasant and not overlong diversion, you can live perfectly happily without it. Classic Spring’s season now moves to the two best known plays – an odd sequence, as you might have expected them to build an audience with those first – but it’ll be good to have seen all four together.

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This is the first of four Oscar Wilde plays in Dominic Dromgoole’s Classic Spring Theatre Company’s year-long residency at the Vaudeville. It’s a lesser performed Wilde play and it’s good to see it, and to be reminded if how sparkling Wilde’s dialogue is, and there’s the bonus of a superb cast.

Though it’s mostly set in Lady Hunstanton’s home and garden, it revolves around her friend and neighbour Mrs Arbuthnot & her son Gerald. Widow Lady Hunstanton is entertaining various members of society, including an MP, a vicar, two Lord’s, two Lady’s and a Knight! Lord Illingworth announces that he has employed Gerald as his Secretary, but when his mother turns up after dinner they realise they have history and baggage that gets in the way. What starts as a social satire gets deeper and more moralistic. A visiting American Puritan girl, Miss Worsley, gives a lecture, which doesn’t go down well with everyone, but she proves crucial to how events turn out.

It’s an old-fashioned play that gets a suitably old-fashioned production, but the dialogue does sparkle and Wilde’s plotting is very good. I liked the musical numbers between scene changes where Anne Reid showed off another talent, accompanied by four of the supporting cast on guitar, violin & clarinet. Reid is excellent as Lady Hunstanton, as is Eve Best as the more serious Mrs Arbuthnot. Eleanor Bron almost steals the show as Lady Caroline, one of the greatest nags ever written. Dominic Rowan continues to impress as baddie Lord Illingworth and Emma Fielding is terrific as feisty Mrs Allonby.

It’s a good, if conservative, production of a play worthy of revival. Hopefully, the season will up its game as it goes along.

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